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Hacking my Digital Research Workflow, Part 1

YMCA La Boca, Reading Room and Office

I took a few days this winter break to revisit my digital research and writing workflow.

I’ve been struggling to make my workflow flow. In the (recent) past, my research and writing process was a time consuming mashup of analog and digital tools and strategies. Archival material were scattered across computers and offices, which made compiling for the writing phase a nightmare. Each time I sat down to write, I needed to remind myself which research plan I was following, which applications I last used, and where in my computer (or on my desk) I’d left the most relevant material.

Now that I’m tackling my book project, I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes. Here’s what I’ve learned over the last two or three years:

  • I need to be as digital as possible. As much as I’m online, you’d think this would be a given, but I resisted the impulse until now. There is still something about pen and paper notebooks that feels simple and right, especially when I’m taking notes on archival material. But times have changed. I spend a lot of time in archives and libraries taking and organizing digital photos of material. I have hundreds of .pdfs of books and articles that I need to read and, more important, search at a moment’s notice. I still keep a paper journal for jotting down thoughts and task management, but I do all of my academic writing–from note-taking to drafts–entirely on the computer, even if I do print drafts to markup as I go along. In other words, I thought being paperless wasn’t a priority, but more and more, it looks like I am headed in that the direction.
  • I need to be mobile. My lifestyle, the lifestyle of most academics, doesn’t give me much wiggle room when it comes to carrying books and papers around. I fly or drive somewhere for work at least once a month–conferences, research libraries, academic talks, visiting family and friends. By next summer, I’ll have moved five times in the last five years. Each time, the number of clothes and miscellaneous household items I pack is laughable compared to the many, many boxes of books I end up taping. Each time, I end up giving away books I love but don’t need and frantically scanning paper research notes into my computer. No more. I need to be mobile, I need my information in the cloud, and I need to know it is safe even from me (about once a year I get impatient and declutter my Desktop by dumping everything in the Trash).  I need to be able to work on the fly and find material I left at “home” if I need to. I need to be able to use my iPad and other smart devices for research, but I also need the transition between each to be as seamless as possible.
  • I need to simplify EVERYTHING. Applications, platforms, and programming languages are changing too quickly for my research and writing flow to keep up. I often tweak my workflow to keep up with new and interesting applications as they are created–willingly because I’m always looking for ways to streamline my process. But whenever I do, I usually hit one or two conversion walls or translators garble my notes, and I’m stuck until I find time to do clean up (I still have OneNote files from a pre-Apple life that I can’t convert but don’t want to throw away). I’m also tired of paying for expensive upgrades. I believe in freeware and open-source out of necessity and as a social justice. Most of the applications I use are free. But I don’t mind spending money if it seems worth it (example: Scrivener is worth every single penny). The problem with throwing $20, $30, $40 at upgrades for MacJournal or Bento is I usually get nothing  in return because the upgrades don’t significantly change how I interface with the application. I used to blame developers and business, but I’ve come to realize my workflow needs are just too darn simple. Also, since most of the programs I use are free, support is minimal or crowd sourced, or versions are in beta for years. I’ve had one too many programs crash, taking all of my specialized formatting and preferences with them. I don’t want expensive applications or expensive support lines. But I need files that save immediately and a system that will survive a computer meltdown. I need files that work across applications and are easily converted back and forth in a variety of ways. All the better if the system is simple, open-sourced, and easily shared with a like-minded community.

That’s it.  That’s all I need. And it must not be much because a touch of trial and error and some active Googling later, I created a system that meets my needs, has a barely-there learning curve, and enhances what I already know works well for how I live, write, and think. Surprising enough, I ended up returning to a lot of what I first knew and loved about computers in the first place–the command line, plain text, and getting the most out of my folders and files.

I compiled most of the posts I explored here and will keep adding to the list. Chad Black’s posts on his “ever-changing workflow” were especially helpful. And in true digital humanities spirit, I’ll share some of what I’ve done over the next few weeks. Assuming this process stands the test of time…

To be continued…

Featured Image Credit:  YMCA La Boca, Reading Room and Office. [Group of African Americans in the Reading Room at the YMCA] (190-). Jesse Alexander photograph collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture